Worldview: Egyptian revolution likely to have long-term ripple effect

Posted: April 21, 2011

The early wave of excitement inspired by the Arab uprisings has given way to unease, both here and in the Middle East.

Most of the revolts look unlikely to end well. When Yemen's leader goes, tribal conflict seems the likely outcome. If Syria's dictator falls, ethnic and sectarian bloodshed will probably follow. No one seems to have a clue about who can hold Libya together after Moammar Gadhafi.

And skeptics are even skewering the prospects for positive change in Egypt, the bellwether of the region, arguing that the idealistic youths who deposed an autocrat will have little impact on the political outcome.

Typical is Ian Bremmer, the thoughtful president of Eurasia Group, who warned, "We should not go looking at Egypt as if it's a successful revolution." He said we should view it as "a managed transition," in which any new elected government will be weak and the military will remain the most powerful player.

I beg to differ. I think an important revolution has occurred in Egypt, one that will have ripple effects throughout the region (although it may be years before we see the full impact). I refer not to a revolutionary shift in Egypt's political system, but to a revolution in thinking - to be specific, in the way Egyptians think about their relationship to government.

"For the first time, we are feeling that our problems must be solved by us, not by Americans, or by God," said Hossam Bahgat, the dynamic young executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human-rights advocacy group in Cairo.

Anyone who has spent years focused on the Arab world will know that such a statement of personal responsibility for one's future is revolutionary indeed.

Throughout the Middle East, a passive public has tended to attribute its powerlessness against autocrats to conspiracies of the West or Israel, or to unseen forces. "We were like donkeys" was a phrase I heard repeatedly in Cairo's working-class cafes from men trying to explain why they had thought it pointless to push for reforms before January. For decades - the living memory of most Arabs - leadership was left to kings, emirs, generals, or dictators, while the public had no confidence in its ability to effect change.

The Tahrir Square rebellion (preceded by the Tunisian upheaval) changed that thought pattern among hundreds of thousands of Egyptian young people. And their elders have taken notice. Another phrase I heard repeatedly from Egyptians was "the young people taught us" that things can change.

Moreover, because the Egyptian revolt ended relatively quickly - unlike the extended chaos in Libya and elsewhere - people have had time to process its meaning. Yes, the military will remain the preeminent power, even after parliamentary elections are held in August. But the military understands that Egyptians now expect a greater say in how they are ruled.

During the last few weeks, in an effort to preempt the continuing Tahrir Square demonstrations on Fridays, the generals have made a series of stunning midweek concessions. "We call this the Thursday gift," Bahgat told me with a smile during a visit to Washington last week. The latest was the arrest and interrogation of two sons and several aides of former President Hosni Mubarak.

The "Thursday gifts" indicate that the generals understand the people expect their grievances to be addressed.

Bahgat, a political science graduate and former journalist, understands the difficulty of translating the Tahrir Square youth's cachet into political power. In the new political atmosphere, numerous new liberal and social-democratic parties are sprouting, which may split the votes of the newly energized youth and their supporters.

Meantime, many Egyptians and Westerners worry that the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, will do well at the polls because it has the best organization. Egyptians also worry that the former ruling party, although recently banned, may reemerge and prosper in rural areas, where it had created a powerful patronage system.

Yet Bahgat said bluntly: "The Ikhwan don't scare me." He said their past electoral strength - 20 percent of the votes in the 2005 elections - stemmed from the fact that they were the only opposition group the regime didn't crush.

The Brothers also used to be seen as the only force that was anticorruption. "But now they can't claim they are the only ones with clean hands," Bahgat pointed out. "My gut feeling is that they won't get the biggest bloc."

In the new Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will have plenty of electoral competition. Young activists hope to mobilize much of the 80 percent of the population who never voted because they thought their votes were irrelevant.

"We've been showered by e-mail from all over the country," said Bahgat, "from students, from young people in Aswan and Asyut [in upper Egypt], and Egyptians overseas" who want to help with the August parliamentary elections.

He hopes that by July, the many new parties that have grown out of the revolt will join in a broad coalition, with the heroes of Tahrir Square out front. "If there is a list of 'candidates of the revolution,' people will vote for them," he said, and I believe he is correct.

Yet even if the August elections disappoint and Egypt's economy fails to revive, Bahgat believes the situation can't return to the status quo ante.

There has been a fundamental transformation in Egyptian thinking, he said: Young people have "decided to be part of the solution. The guarantee against sliding back is to maintain the mobilization of this new generation."

I think he's on to something. The real Egyptian revolution - which could become the role model for the region - will happen when people believe they can shape their lives after generations of fear and passivity. There are strong signs that revolution is at hand.

Trudy Rubin can be reached


comments powered by Disqus